These days, the internet is chock-full of travel “hacks” that promise to help you book, pack, and fly for a fraction of the effort and expense.
Reading through some of these lists, however, can trigger an eyebrow raise from the savvy traveler. You may find yourself thinking, “There’s no way that really works.” Chances are, there’s merit to that gut feeling—many so-called hacks rarely play out as portrayed on Pinterest.
In an attempt to cut through the noise and offer advice you’ll actually use, below are a few time-tested travel tips gleaned from more than two years of full-time traveling (and more 10-plus-hour flights than I care to reflect upon).
1. Talk to strangers—and get creative.
Whether you’re talking to a local bartender, a tour guide, or a fellow traveler, there’s no more trite question than, “What’s your favorite [restaurant, city, etc.]?” Come up with at least two go-to questions that are a bit more inventive.
Getting more specific with these queries can lead to the discovery of true hidden gems. Try asking, “Where’s the best place for people-watching in this city?” or “What’s been your most memorable meal in the past six months?” instead of leaning on clichés, and you’ll be rewarded with equally thoughtful responses.
2. A dedicated pouch for cords is a necessity.
One downside of technology: an abundance of accessories. If you’ve ever spent 20 minutes digging through your carry-on for a portable charger, earbuds, or USB cord, you know how frustrating (and elusive) these items can be. A little pouch that’s specifically dedicated to these cords—and kept easily accessible in your carry-on—will save you serious headaches.
Pro tip: Some airlines give out little goodie bags with earplugs, an eye mask, and socks to every passenger. These baggies make perfect travel tech-cessory pouches. (I’ve been using one I picked up from Qatar Airways for the past year; it’s the perfect size.)
3. There’s an optimal number of alcoholic drinks to have while flying.
Downing four glasses of wine to relax sounds like a great idea during a three-hour layover or before a red-eye flight, but think twice before drinking half a bottle of Cab. Being on a plane causes dehydration and naturally messes with your circadian rhythm, and alcohol exacerbates both these things.
Too much booze can disrupt everything from your sleep cycle to your neighbor (who won’t be thrilled when you have to get up from the middle seat to use the lavatory six times). If you want a drink to take the edge off, that’s fine—but stick to one, one-and-a-half max. You’ll thank yourself later for having a little restraint.
4. Carry pens.
Sometime after smartphones became prolific, the practice of carrying pens fell into sharp decline. Nobody wants to be the plane neighbor who has to ask the surrounding three rows to borrow a pen to fill out a customs form (or a particularly tantalizing crossword puzzle in an airline magazine).
This one is an easy fix: You probably have an entire drawer filled with pens somewhere in your house. Grab a couple, toss them into your carry-on, and leave them in there as permanent fixtures.
5. Keychains are amazingly useful.
Especially if you frequently stay in apartment-style rooms or Airbnbs, it’s a good idea to carry a keychain so that you don’t lose the keys to your home away from home.
Here are a few of my favorites: surprisingly stylish Gorilla Tape; a sleek corkscrew wine opener (this one will fly with TSA); a tiny, powerful flashlight; and a simple carabiner. These gadgets take up very little space in luggage and come in shockingly handy in a pinch.
6. You can use a hotel room kettle to steam your clothes.
Wrinkles are the bane of a frequent traveler’s existence, and unfortunately nobody has yet invented a truly effective wrinkle spray. In addition to using a hair straightener or steam from a hot shower as a quick fix for wrinkled clothes, using a portable kettle as a steamer when you’re boiling drinking water or making tea takes resourcefulness to the next level. (If you’ve got extra room in a suitcase, these travel-sized steamers are a more conventional option.)
7. Make it a practice to take in 20 seconds of tech-free silence every day.
In a world in which little white earbuds have practically become appendages to our bodies (and in which we’re constantly glued to Google Maps), technology can be as much of a distraction as it is a valuable travel aid. And while friends or family can certainly add to travel experiences, being engaged in constant conversation with your travel companions means you may miss out on important solo moments that will later come to define your time in a new city or country.
So, watch a sunset in silence without trying (and, let’s be honest, failing) to capture it on a smartphone; look up from Google and actually take in the street you’re walking down. Find a way to remind yourself to take 10 or 20 seconds of each travel day to truly soak in it all in. (Downloading the 1 Second Everyday app is a fun way to develop this habit.)
8. Stop stressing about “hacking” travel.
Sometimes travel hacks are quirky shortcuts, and sometimes they’re fabulous failures. Regardless, focusing too hard on having a seamless travel experience misses the point. Sometimes, the best travel memories come out of sheer happenstance—or even in the aftermath of a mishap. Learning to roll with the punches is one of the most valuable lessons that travel can teach, so channel your inner spontaneity and embrace the unfamiliar.